A journey through France: the Maconnais

xJoin Hamish Marett-Crosby on a wine and food lovers’ journey around some of the great, and lesser known, wine areas of Europe. What more natural place to start than France, where over the next few months on wine-pages, Hamish will take you through Burgundy, the Rhône, the Loire and beyond. For each of the regions Hamish will evoke the best of wine, food, culture and scenery. In this installment, he continues his journey from Chablis, southward to the Mâconnais, where he spends a few days in and around the vineyards of this less well-known, but delightful corner of Burgundy.

The Mâconnais: Young Wines, Old Stones

Our perceptions of many holiday destinations were mapped out by the Benedictines over 1000 years ago. As a result, there is a straight road running through our appreciation of wine and history. It starts with the Benedictine and Cistercian monks, their walled vineyards, and thence to their old cellars and fabulously expensive wines. In Burgundy that is the main road, and it leads straight into the Clos Vougeot. But there is also a smaller side road. It too starts with the Benedictines, in what was once the centre of European culture and learning, the great Abbey of Cluny. It follows a much more winding country road to the villages of the Mâconnais. This is an area not only brimming with good, drinkable white wine from vineyards around picturesque hillside villages, but also richly studded with little gems of romanesque churches. Many were built as monastic foundations, and they all needed wine for the sacrament as well as for potions and cordials.

The villages themselves – with the exception of Pouilly and Fuissé have only relatively recently been exposed to the world through wine labels. Names such as Lugny and Viré are known for making good quality dry white wine from the Chardonnay grape. They can represent a good value alternative to the higher priced wines from a few miles north in the Côte D’Or. The villages in the Central Mâconnais sell wines under the group name Mâcon Villages, a label seen regularly on the supermarket shelves. But there is more to this region than wine and food even if it is Mâcon Lugny and jambon persillé (pressed ham with parsley and garlic).

It was by mistake that I first discovered the romanesque circuit of the Mâconnais; a chance sighting of a sign set me off into the hills. The signs died out, and I lost my way only to find it, then lose it once more. But that didn’t matter. I was in no hurry, and it was on that faltering journey that I “discovered” two of the many treats in store: the villages of Chapaize and Brancion.

But it helps to start off in generally the right direction. The simplest and cheapest way to plot a course, is to head for Cluny. Marvel at what is left

xof what was once the centre of European culture, the Abbey, and base yourself in one of the many hotels. Then head for a café and, on your way, buy yourself a good map, some multi-view post cards (the simplest guide book to any part of France) and ten minutes study, then off you go. That way you can relish the joys of “discovering” somewhere yourself rather than slavishly following a guide; it is also more fun as the inevitable wrong turn can lead to some lovely surprises, so take the wrong turn; it won’t be wrong for long.

It was one such turn about ten years ago that brought me to the church of Chapaize. Just off the back road from Cluny to Beaune, and a world away from the Route National which connects Beaune to Mâcon and Lyons. With its huge tower, the church dwarfs the tiny village, sitting – as always seems to be the case with such buildings – heavily on the ground. Inside, the triple-apsed church has the feel of incredible antiquity (after all the building started over 1,000 years ago) yet at the same time one almost of impermanence; a feeling engendered by the leaning pillars of the nave seemingly on the point of collapse.

xJust a little way up into the hills lies the extraordinary mediaeval village of Brancion. Once a busy little centre, now a lost backwater – but what a setting. It is a filmmakers dream; the English romantic view of France set in stone and bedecked with flowers. The travelogue scene-setting shot which says “this is the French countryside” on top of a hill commanding the best views from the catalogue. Here the little walled gate; there the 12th century château complete with fortifications and dungeons; over there the 15th century market hall and inn. At the hill top, with its barely visible frescoes, the 12th century church looks across miles of country to the Charolais and the Morvan.Mention of Charolais – and of course beef – brings us back to the table, and why not? This is a wine region. Spiritual sustenance is wrung out of the Romanesque buildings.

But baser instincts are pandered to in abundance from the fresh young white wines of Mâcon to the more sumptuous wines of the Côte D’Or just to the north, or the bright young reds of the Beaujolais just a few miles south. But whichever way you go, spare a thought for the Benedictine monks some 1,000 years ago. For without them, we would be having a poorer life and less interesting holidays.